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John Pilger: Julian Assange & the liberal game of silencing the messenger

Of all the recent revolts across the world, the most exciting is the insurrection of knowledge sparked by WikiLeaks. But even the liberal press is turning its back on Julian Assange.

As the US and Britain look for an excuse to invade another oil-rich Arab country, the hypocrisy is familiar. While Colonel Gaddafi is "delusional" and "blood-drenched", the authors of an invasion that killed a million Iraqis, who have sanctioned kidnap and torture in our name, are entirely sane, never blood-drenched and once again the arbiters of "stability".

But something has changed. Reality is no longer what the powerful say it is. Of all the spectacular revolts across the world, the most exciting is the insurrection of knowledge sparked by WikiLeaks. This is not a new idea.

In 1792, the revolutionary Tom Paine warned his readers in England that their government believed that "people must be hoodwinked and held in superstitious ignorance by some bugbear or other". Paine's The Rights of Man was considered such a threat to elite control that a secret grand jury was ordered to charge him with "a dangerous and treasonable conspiracy". Wisely, he sought refuge in France.

The ordeal and courage of Tom Paine were cited by the Sydney Peace Foundation, in its awarding of Australia's human rights gold medal to Julian Assange. Like Paine, Assange is a maverick who serves no system and is threatened by a secret grand jury, a malicious device long abandoned in England but not in America. If extradited to the US, he is likely to disappear into the Kafkaesque world that produced the Guantanamo Bay nightmare and now accuses Bradley Manning, the alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower, of a capital crime.

Black farce

Should Assange's appeal against extradition to Sweden fail, he will probably, once charged, be denied bail and held incommunicado until his trial in secret. The sexual assault case against him has already been dismissed by a senior prosecutor in Stockholm; it was given new life only when a right-wing politician, Claes Borgström, intervened and made public statements about Assange's "guilt". Borgström, a lawyer, now represents the two women involved. His law partner is Thomas Bodström, who, as Sweden's minister for justice in 2001, was implicated in the handover of two innocent Egyptian refugees to a CIA kidnap squad at a Stockholm airport. Sweden later awarded them damages for their torture.

These facts were documented in an Australian parliamentary briefing in Canberra on 2 March. Outlining the epic miscarriage of justice threatening Assange, the inquiry heard expert evidence that, under international standards of justice, the behaviour of certain officials in Sweden would be considered "highly improper and reprehensible [and] preclude a fair trial". Tony Kevin, a former senior Australian diplomat, described the close ties between the Swedish prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, and the Republican right in the US. "Reinfeldt and [George W] Bush are friends," he said. Reinfeldt has attacked Assange publicly and hired Karl Rove, the former Bush crony, to advise him. The implications for Assange's extradition to the US from Sweden are dire.

The Australian inquiry was ignored in the UK, where black farce is preferred. On 3 March, the Guardian announced that Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks would be making "an investigative thriller in the mould of All the President's Men out of its book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy. I asked David Leigh, who wrote the book with Luke Harding, how much DreamWorks had paid the Guardian for the screen rights and what he expected to make personally. "No idea," was the puzzling reply of the Guardian's "investigations editor". The paper paid WikiLeaks nothing for its treasure trove of leaks. Assange and WikiLeaks - not Leigh or Harding - were responsible for what the Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, has called "one of the greatest journalistic scoops of the last 30 years".

The Guardian has made it clear that it has no further use for Assange. He is a loose cannon who did not fit Guardianworld, who proved a tough, unclubbable negotiator. And brave. In the Guardian's self-regarding book, Assange's extraordinary bravery is excised. He becomes a figure of petty bemusement, an "unusual Australian" with a "frizzy-haired" mother; he is gratuitously abused as "callous" and a "damaged personality" who was "on the autistic spectrum". How will Spielberg deal with this childish character assassination?

Under siege

On the BBC's Panorama, Leigh indulged hearsay that Assange did not care about the lives of those named in the leaks. As for the claim that he had complained of a "Jewish conspiracy", which followed a torrent of internet nonsense that he was an evil agent of Mossad, Assange rejected this as "completely false, in spirit and word".

It is hard to describe, let alone imagine, the sense of isolation and state of siege of Assange, who is paying for tearing aside the façade of power. The canker here is not the far right but the paper-thin liberalism of those who guard the limits of free speech. The New York Times has distinguished itself by spinning and censoring the WikiLeaks material. "We are taking all [the] cables to the administration," said the editor, Bill Keller. "They've convinced us that redacting certain information would be wise." In an article by Keller, Assange is personally abused. At the Columbia School of Journalism on 3 February, Keller said, in effect, that the public could not be trusted with the release of further cables. This might cause a "cacophony". The gatekeeper has spoken.

The heroic Bradley Manning is kept under lights and cameras 24 hours a day and is forced to sleep naked. Greg Barns, director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, says the fears that Assange will "end up being tortured in a high-security American prison" are justified. Who will share responsibility for such a crime?

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?